Consumer Reports: How to keep your gift cards from going to waste

Experts share tips for reclaiming leftover balances and spending wisely

How to make sure you don’t fall for a gift card scam this holiday season

More than just a convenience, gift cards can be a safety net for last-minute shoppers and a fallback for hard-to-please giftees. These days, as shortages and supply chain disruptions hinder holiday buyers, they can also be a source of worry-free gifting that’s immune to delays, especially when it comes to the digital variety. The downside? Forgetting you have one or misplacing it.

In 2020, approximately $14.2 billion was left on gift cards. What’s more, according to a nationally representative survey of 2,184 U.S. adults conducted by Consumer Reports in July, 51 percent of Americans have at least one unused gift card. That’s a lot of dollars unspent.

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If you can count yourself in that group, it’s probably time to take action. We spoke to industry experts for their insight on getting the most out of gift cards by reclaiming balances and keeping them top of mind. Here’s what we learned.

Treat It Like Cash

If you received $20 cash tucked in a greeting card, you would immediately put the money in your wallet and possibly even spend it the next time you went to the store, says Shelley Hunter, founder of Gift Card Girlfriend, a digital destination that provides insights and tips into the gift card industry. Not doing the same with gift cards is a key reason why they tend to be forgotten.

The more accessible and visible a gift card is, the more likely it is that it’ll be used. And saving it for the “right” occasion might not be doing you any favors either. “The longer you hold onto a card, the higher the likelihood you’ll lose it or forget to use it,” says Hunter. “The card either sits indefinitely or disappears in some way.”

Stay on Top of Your Balance

You use a portion of a gift card and are left with a single-digit balance you can’t quite put toward much else. Sound familiar?

With certain gift cards that are widely accepted—think Visa, American Express, or Amazon—this may not be an issue because it’s easier to deplete balances. On the other hand, brand-specific gift cards, which limit consumers to a single establishment, can be a slippery slope to overspending.

An annoyance to shoppers, it’s a beneficial outcome for merchants known as “up spend,” or when a consumer expends more on a purchase than the value of the gift card, says Amy Dunckelmann, vice president of research operations at Mercator Advisory Group.

Instead of disregarding or tossing out that card, keep it on hand for future purchases. If you don’t foresee yourself using the card, consider reloading it (if possible) and giving it to someone else for a birthday, holiday, or celebration. If you have multiple gift cards with leftover sums, keep a list with the card numbers and corresponding balances, which you can easily refer to and use the next time you’re shopping. Here are some more ways to spend those last few dollars (or cents!) on your gift cards.

To track remaining balances, look to the back of your card. “Retailers provide information on where consumers can go to check their balances—usually a retailers’ website, although some offer a toll-free phone number,” say the experts behind the Retail Gift Card Association (RGCA), a trade association that promotes high standards and best practices in the gift card industry.

Avoid using third-party apps or services to check your gift card balances because they could potentially lead to theft or scams. “Whether you have a gift card to a store or restaurant or a bank-issued gift card, the safest and most secure way to check the balance of a gift card is to go directly to the gift card issuer,” says Hunter, adding that they’re the only source that can provide accurate verification of your gift card balance.

Combine Funds When Possible

Most retailers don’t allow consolidation of balances, so the easiest way to work around that is to simply tell the cashier in-store that you have several gift cards to use, says Hunter. “Although you can use multiple Visa or other bank-issued gift cards in stores in a single transaction, you can typically only use one per transaction when shopping online.”

The workaround there is to use a bank-issued card to purchase a store gift card, she adds. “When the store gift card arrives, you can combine that card with a second bank-issued gift card to complete an online purchase. Though not convenient, that is one way to combine the balances of bank-issued gift cards for use online—without actually combining the balances into a single gift card.”

According to the RGCA, some retailers will also enable shoppers to load physical gift cards and e-gift balances onto their apps or onto registered accounts often associated with rewards programs. They note that most major mobile wallets will allow for gift card loads onto consumers’ accounts as well.

Seek Out the Lost

So what happens if you lose a gift card? If you registered it with the gift card company, it may make it easier to track down the number—otherwise, you may have to do a little digging around. If you purchased the gift card digitally, look through your email for a receipt or transaction details, which could potentially include the card number. If you received it as a gift, you may have to track down the giver of the card, per Hunter’s advice, and see whether they retained any record of the transaction.

“Typically, gift cards do not expire, and with the right information provided, most companies offering gift cards can help ‘recover’ a forgotten number, but not always,” says Dunckelmann.

If a non-promotional gift card expires but there are still funds on the card, contact the card’s issuer to check the balance and see whether you can get a replacement, Hunter advises. “If you don’t have the physical gift card or the e-gift card, you will likely have to provide proof of ownership with a purchase receipt.”

Recycle With Caution

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a gift card you’ll probably not use, Hunter suggests repurposing it immediately via a donation, regifting, or using it to buy a present for someone else. “Though not what the gift-giver intended, it’s better to transfer the value of the gift card to someone else than to toss the value entirely,” she says.

If you choose to resell your gift card, do so with caution and be wary of third-party services. Due to an uptick of fraudulence in the gift card reseller industry, Hunter advises consumers to avoid trading their cards for cash, unless it’s with a trusted source. Or give it to a nonprofit organization, because they are always looking for gift card donations that can be auctioned off at fundraisers or gift cards that can be used to buy supplies.